Posted in Railways on Saturday 22nd October 2011 at 11:57pm

Watford is a very odd place...arriving yesterday to the most chaotic hotel check-in I've ever experienced, I realised that this 'central' hotel is in a centre which has moved. The almost rural setting, in a site hemmed in by two arms of railway, a distributor road and the course of the diverted River Colne is mere metres from the High Street, but could be a world away. Having spent a somewhat uneasy night anticipating a complicated early journey, I shuffled down to the station - the first customer through the ticket gates in fact. This accommodation was a late choice, and was based on a Euston start and finish. In the event I had to get to Paddington - and for an earlier start that planned by an hour or so. Given my pathological escalator fear and the inevitable Circle Line engineering this mean getting the first Overground train into Euston, a bit of a slog made easier by good music and people watching, then heading over to catch a 205. In the event, we arrived on time and I dashed across the concourse and out onto Euston Road making a +3 connection which got me to Paddington nice and early, and in time for a relaxing breakfast and lots of coffee to prepare for the long day ahead. Chatted with some friends, and then noted when boarding that I was seated with some others I'd not seen for a while. It was going to be a pleasant day.

The route ran much as planned out of Paddington, with the sun rising to reveal a bright wintry morning as we sped west. Having spotted some signalling problems at Basingstoke online earlier, I wondered what the effect would be - and in an extended stop at Reading it was mooted that progressing via Westbury might be the answer, but in the event we went via the booked route, using an unusual crossover to pass a freight just outside Basingstoke station. Here things sped up a little and we headed towards Eastleigh where food supplies were taken on board, before continuing via various loops and goods lines to Southamtpon and beyond. Having passed through a sunny and rather busy Poole, we began to curve away from the line through the disused platform at Hamworthy Station, taking the sharply curved track towards the Quay. Despite a number of crossings we pressed on as far as the line was physically available, with our coach drawing level with the former station platform. A quick reversal took us back onto the mainline, with some frustratingly slow running behind stopping trains which compounded the slight delay we were carrying. However, we made up a little time as we sped back to Winchester to reverse in the Baltic Siding which is used exclusively for ECS moves and may never have seen a passenger train before it seems. On arrival at Eastleigh we headed over the connection into the works, travelling right to the end of the line inside the complex, alongside rakes of stored Class 313s. I think everyone onboard was impressed with this result - and it was odd to be in here on a train, after wandering around the site at the open day a couple of years back.

37706 at Aldershot waiting to head for Waterloo
37706 at Aldershot waiting to head for Waterloo

We reversed again into Eastleigh station, before heading out in the Portsmouth direction. A little after the long and rather forlorn brick building of the works, we curved sharply right onto the Depot Reception line which makes a huge loop around the back of the works, through a carriage washer and into a fan of sidings which once held EWS's stored locomotive assets before they were sold, scrapped or shipped off to Toton. Today there was just one largely derelict Class 58, lots of Riviera stock and a couple of their Class 47s around. We pushed on through the sidings, finally exiting in the narrow angle of lines between the mainline to Southampton and the Works entrance. Back into the station with much rejoicing at some excellent track completed - and the first time in many years a train had passed through the works and the depot here. Next we headed for Portsmouth Harbour - disappointingly being denied access to Fratton depot's through lines by a Local Manager despite permissions being in place. A minor loss really, but it did enable us to arrive a little earlier than expected, and thus depart from the Harbour on time, clawing back our delay. For those heading directly back to London this was a bonus, though for any of us staying on for the second part of the trip, this meant that we'd have to sit in Staines Loop for a much longer wait. Swings and roundabouts I suppose. The run into London via Aldershot was slow and dark, and I amused myself by watching the world through people's windows as we scudded through the suburbs - always an interesting trip.

Said some hurried goodbyes to companions at Waterloo, before we headed off again taking a slightly different route to Staines, where we sat in the Up Loop for a while. Whiled away the time chatting to one of the organisers about railtour politics, future trips and matters of interest, before we began our slow traversal of West London in order to gain the slow lines on the WCML which was operating as a two-track railway by now due to engineering possessions overnight. As we passed my hotel in Watford, glowing warmly purple in the now chilly night, I felt the lurch over to the right which meant we were taking the very rare connection to the St.Albans Abbey platform at Watford Junction. Indeed, the unit which is usually locked onto the branch sat in the yard as we crept past and headed onto this elusive bit of track. A brief step onto the dark, cold platform at the end of the line to savour the triumph of finally getting here, before boarding again for the short hop back to Watford Junction where a slightly early arrival meant I comfortably made the last train back to the High Street and didn't have to make the trek on a painfully wonky ankle which I'd developed.

In comparison to the similar Buffer Puffer trip a couple of weeks back, this trip delivered almost all of what it planned to. Some elements fell out early on - not least the now near impossible East Putney curve - but there was lots of interesting track, a friendly atmosphere on board and a real sense of the organisers wanting things to work out - and doing their homework to ensure it did. Strangely, in a time when everyone predicted the rare track tour would die off in favour of top notch lunch trains and excursions, there is a fair bit of competition to get to new places, onto private lines and further along odd branches. Long may this continue, providing people really do try to deliver what they advertise. Spitfire definitely did today.

Movebook Link

Posted in Highbridge on Thursday 20th October 2011 at 4:25pm

Once again on Monday, a pair of apparently disaffected local youths set fire to the remains of the Highbridge Hotel - this time in broad daylight on a busy weekday evening. It was again a pretty serious fire, which given the sodden timbers of the interior must have been generously accelerated to reach the intensity which it appears to have. A huge amount of damage was done to the remains of the interior and the roof. At present, it's not known if any further structural damage has occurred.

It would be so easy, with the fire coming just two days before a public meeting to discuss the site, to invent conspiracies. It might not even be inaccurate to do so, but if yesterday's meeting needed to do anything, it needed to break the three-way impasse between community, developer and Local Authority if it was to move things forward in any sense. The meeting was, in fairness, rather a shambles. A proposed 'drop in' session of three hours, organised during the working day and thus fairly inaccessible, became a formal meeting of just two hours. So I ended up blundering into the room around an hour before the published end of the meeting to hear the chairman say "well, lets start wrapping this up then...". To be frank, I'd been in two minds about attending after the "behave or else" warnings on the town's internet forum from the chair. I didn't think people would be able to articulate what they felt without anger - and I also thought it was important that Council Officers heard it. The developer, less so - he'd already had his serving and seems impassive in the face of it. But after all, the bit of the meeting I caught was temperate and fairly interesting. I also arrived in time to find the thoughts I'd provided for one of our Town Councillors being read to the meeting by someone who did so much more articulately than I would have. I'll reproduce it here, because it continues to sum up what I feel, and I think it struck a chord - however minor - with the SDC officers:

The Highbridge Hotel on Monday evening
The Highbridge Hotel on Monday evening

The debate about whether to clear the site or rebuild the hotel is fundamentally not the right one to have. The public should press their council and the developer to come up with a range of proposals for the site, with or without the hotel. We shouldn’t be asked to make an impossible choice based on blind faith that “something” will be done with the site in the future – that way we could lose a huge asset to the town without any guarantee of a scheme which will benefit us. If SDC are serious about building positive momentum, real costed proposals for the site with assessments of impact on the area are a start to rebuilding Highbridge’s relationship with the council.

We need a solution for the site which links to the economic regeneration of the centre of town. Housing of the right form, quantity and quality quite rightly plays a part in this. But only if the proposal for the site can sustain employment at least for those moving into the homes, and ideally to others already seeking work in Highbridge, is it right to progress it. An unsustainable development which adds to the burden on stretched infrastructure without contributing economically to the town is simply not an option for Highbridge now.

With respect, a community facility is just not needed. We have many such facilities already, and the idea that a building or centre could repair the damage wrought from years of poor planning decisions is frankly insulting. Given that the lead time and partnerships for building schools, health facilities etc. is simply not available I can only think this means a meeting hall. We need to move beyond 1970s views of community development work and start to engage with the evidence about what the community needs – in the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment and elsewhere. The damaged hotel site has galvanised more community spirit than any specific action SDC has taken in years – there is a strong message in that about the value the town places on the site, and the approaches SDC are using to the community.

So, will this lead to change for the site, and more importantly a new attitude to Highbridge? Will a revival of the regeneration partnership manage to side-step the usual political footballers and move the site towards a development which has what Highbridge almost universally told Sedgemoor District Council it wanted (retail, jobs, economic viability) rather than what it expressly doesn't (flats, takeaways, more community halls). What kind of people will volunteer for the partnership? It needs to be a mixture of the usual stalwart local volunteers, and people who can slalom through the obstacles of governance and planning without losing heart or feeling overwhelmed. No mean feat, and potentially a thankless and incredibly time-consuming task.

This of course leaves one final question - what of the building itself? Sadly, I sense the tide is turning and the developer is winning the apparently recession-imposed war of attrition. Plenty of people think he's almost redeemed himself because he's letting the local kids (some of whom he confesses he'd lock up!) paint the new wooden hoardings. Thus, the will to knock it down if it will be expedient is strong. Still though, the building hovers as a pale grey, sinister presence on the maps of the proposed 2008 development which were paraded again tonight - almost defying it's own deletion. Quite whether it will survive the efforts of casual local hooligans, let alone the professional ones is up for debate.

Movebook Link

Posted in Railways on Saturday 15th October 2011 at 11:17pm

It feels like a while since I've done much railway related rambling. Almost a week in Glasgow necessitated a long journey of course, but I was pretty preoccupied with the trip at hand, and didn't really make the most of the long runs - especially the one heading back, which CrossCountry's lateness and a Replacement Bus connection managed to turn into a nightmare. Once again this weekend, I've not gone far - but I have entered uncharted waters, and I've even managed to cover some track I didn't know existed in the process!

The occasion is the Branch Line Society's AGM, which this year is being staged in Bristol. With it come a range of weird and wonderful events based around the lesser known and often more minority railway interests, starting yesterday morning with a tour of Brunel's Old Station. This took in the train shed, now a large event venue, before allowing exploration of the former museum area and access to the board room - which I'd once visited for a meeting many years back. It was rather sad to see the museum being catalogued for storage, but perhaps inevitable given the charge for entry and the decline in fortures of the site. We then wandered out for a good poke around the exterior, including the arch under which carriages travelled and the remains of a water trough for horses. Then we headed over to Bristol & Exeter House - now being progressively refurbished as offices for primarily new media outfits. The entrance was impressive and vast, and we ascended the stairs to the top with the insight of someone who once worked for BR here to guide us. Perhaps the most interesting location was the 'cellar' - in fact at ground level, but below the height of the ramp into the station. An impressive and imposing building which was far better executed than the B&E's wooden 'cowshed' station which stood nearby!

Today was even more interesting, with a tour of the current station. Starting in the ticket office and learning how the GW, Midland and B&E shared the facilities, we then explored the offices and refreshment rooms before descending into the goods tunnel below the station. I sense we were kept in fairly innocuous areas of the underground complex, but it was still incredibly interesting - especially the little-known air raid shelter, the hand-wound cart incline to serve a lift to the bar, and the lenghts of track set up to teach maintenance in low light wartime conditions. We then headed into the arch which usually allows access to rail replacement bus services and walked under the subway into wine cellars and other interesting vaults before climbing a steep, tightly curved staircase and emerging from a fairly discreet "Emergency Exit" door on Platform 7. An intriguing tour and I'm sure we touched on only a fraction of what is under Temple Meads station.

Sunset in Bristol, from the M Shed
Sunset in Bristol, from the M Shed

Before I headed over to the M Shed museum where the AGM was taking place, had a quick visit to Bristol Panel Signal Box, where we were allowed to chat with the staff, watch the panel being operated and ask questions. Seeing my home area being worked was fascinating, and a few long pondered questions about local signalling were answered. Really interesting, hospitable people too. A quick walk across town to the much refurbished former Industrial Museum and up to the second floor event suite, with excellent views across the City. After the business of the meeting and a short break, reconvened and had an excellent slide show on local stations by Mike Oakley, who coincidentally wrote the very "Railways In Avon" book which spurred me to visit more local railways right at the start of my interest many years ago. Watched the sun set over the city before wandering back to Temple Meads for a late train back, contemplating what was just a few feet below my feet.

The aspects of the weekend which I attended went remarkably well, and the meeting itself had plenty of interest too. Hopefully, next week will see a return to the rarer bits of the network - and not just more talk about them!

Movebook Link


I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.

I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.

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